Reviews / June 2016 (Issue 32)

Man of Letters: Goenawan Mohamad's Faith in Writing: Forty Years of Essays

by Andreas Winardi


Goenawan Mohamad (author), Jennifer Lindsay (translator), Faith in Writing: Forty Years of Essays, NUS Press, 2015. 376 pgs.


Simple yet attractive—that is my first impression of this book. The cover immediately grabs my attention: the image of a man composed of letters is a brilliant way to tell readers that the author, Goenawan Mohamad, is himself a man of letters. The second thing that piques my interest is the title: Faith in Writing: Forty Years of Essays. The question that immediately comes to my mind is how can a man write consistently, persistently and faithfully for four decades? There must be something special about a man who has kept the faith for so long, despite personal setbacks. I later learn that Goenawan is indeed special; he draws his inspiration from various sources, including his bitter and traumatic experiences. This is a man able to transmute violence and tragedy into a collection of essays filled with valuable lessons and hope.

Goenawan—who has a column in Tempo, the weekly Indonesian news magazine he founded in 1971—has travelled extensively in Indonesia and throughout the world, and these travels, as is attested to by his writing, have made him rich in personal experience, knowledge and spiritual wisdom. In Faith in Writing, he covers a wide range of topics arising from his trips, including the spiritual insights and enlightenment he acquired by travelling to Imogiri, Borobudur, Bali, Mecca, Jerusalem, Saladin's tomb in Damascus and Amsterdam; the religiously motivated brutality he witnessed while in Ambon, Baucau, India and New York and the dilemmas of modernity and social inequality, inspired by a journey to Shanghai.

Goenawan also draws on a breadth of intellectual influences—philosophers (Aristotle, Kant, Confucius), poets (Auden, Blake, Borges, Chairil Anwar, Tagore), psychoanalysts (Jung, Freud, Lacan), religious figures (Jesus, Mohammad, Moses, Siddhartha, Krishna, Vishnu), world luminaries (Gandhi, Mandela, Martin Luther King) and writers (Pasternak, Goethe, Garcia Marquez, Camus, Hergé). He also demonstrates an uncanny ability to mesmerise readers through intriguing and touching narratives. He tells us tales from Javanese history ("Coconut Juice," "Cradling"), the Mahabharata ("Arrows, Family"), Greek mythology ("Icarus One Day," "Athena," "Leda," "Troy"), among others.

The book is divided into three parts, each demonstrating Goenawans' unique personality, vision and perspective. In the first section, "Indonesia on My Mind," the author recounts the story of his beloved home country. He describes the Hindu and Islamic influences at work in Indonesia and reveals how the nation got its name, gained its independence and proved to the world that it could be a united country despite its religious and ethnic diversity. Goenawan also describes Indonesia's struggle to define and observe democratic values and its fights against religious fundamentalism, Communism, corruption and injustice. The most touching part of this section, however, comes with the author's confession of his enduring love for his native land—one which, despite its many challenges, continues to fill his mind with bittersweet memory and hope.

In the next section, "Wider Worlds," Goenawan moves beyond Indonesia to write about global affairs, and the diversity of the topics he covers speaks to his deep knowledge of international issues and his truly global perspective. Finally, in "Mythic and Sacred," Goenawan turns his thoughts towards more religious and spiritual matters. While he doesn't shy away from critiquing the hypocrisy and close-mindedness of people who he feels falsely call themselves "religious," he also openly expresses his admiration of the truly wise and faithful.

Taken as a whole, Faith in Writing reveals a first rate mind at work: curious, critical, moral and able to make associations that others cannot. Goenawan resembles Steve Jobs in his ability to connect the dots. To draw a metaphor from cooking, he is a chef who is able to put together seemingly unrelated ingredients into a delicious dish. This talent is particularly on show in "Jerusalem," in which he beautifully blends William Blake, the story of Oedipus, Hamlet, Arjuna's Bhagavad Gita and John Lennon, all in one essay. A similar flair is on display in "Tso Wang." Here, Goenawan compares fundamentalism to technology and convincingly articulates the similarities between a 10th century Javanese poem's description of thanksgiving, the views of the 14th century mystic Meister Echart and the teachings of the 4th century BCE Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi.

Violence and injustice are recurring themes in Faith in Writing, and in the collection, we find numerous examples of how a government that is supposed to protect its citizens betrays their trust through oppression, particularly of the powerless and helpless. In "Death of Sukardal," Goenawan tells the tragic tale of Sukardal, a fifty-three-year-old becak (trishaw) driver who hanged himself after the confiscation of his becak by local authorities resulted in a devastating loss of income and pride. Before committing suicide, however, Sukardal left behind a message: "If this is indeed a nation with justice, then the security police must be investigated." Goenawan admires this sentiment—especially coming from an ordinary man—and ends his essay by stating: "He died, and he was not silent. And our lives, as a wise person once said, are made from the deaths of others who do not remain silent." In "Zhivago," Goenawan commemorates the tragic death of Boris Pasternak, the Nobel laureate from Moscow who wrote his prize-winning novel Doctor Zhivago in secret. After the novel was published in the Italy in 1957, Pasternak was labelled a traitor by his own government, who claimed the book did not conform to the Zhdanovshchina, a policy which forced writers to apply the doctrine of Socialist Realism to their works. When the Russian government then banned the distribution of all of Pasternak's works, the writer lost his source of income, and eventually died of lung cancer in 1960.

Elsewhere, Goenawan describes how violence can easily erupt when people become convinced of the superiority of a certain ideology and thus fanatical in its defense. In an essay titled "Douch," he portrays Douch—the official who oversaw the genocide at Tuol Sleng prison during the Khmer Rouge's brutal regime—as the epitome of such blind conviction. In one scene, the Cambodian officier chillingly explains his philosophy to Francois Bizot, a French anthropologist who was captured while studying Buddhism in Cambodia: "The scale of the sacrifice does not matter. What is important is the grandeur of the final goal." Douch, whose real name is Kaing Guek Eav, was notorious for his cruelty and even documented his crimes, such as having the babies smashed to death against the prison's walls. His brutality was so intense that of his 17,000 captives only seven ultimately survived.

Goenawan begins the essay "America" by posing a question: "Which comes first: paranoia or power? I sit in the dark. Flashing before me is a line: 'When you have a hammer, all problems start to look like nails.'" He then goes on to discuss how America—despite its impressive wealth, seemingly unlimited military budget and position as the most powerful nation in the world—could feel threatened by Iraq, an already shattered country. He first pictures America as a powerful hammer that smashes at Iraq, a half-rusty nail, and then goes on to depict how the death of Saddam Hussein was celebrated by the "people of God":

A group of neatly dressed people, middle-aged, fat, is at prayer. The Christian Coalition applauds George W. Bush, someone who—after a carefree life of drink in his youth—was 'reborn.' The President found Jesus. He reads the Bible every morning (does he also read the part of Christ's Sermon on the Mount, promising 'the meek shall inherit the earth'? and like the fundamentalist Protestants who support him, he believes that the United States is the New Jerusalem. Like Israel, a Promised Land […]

To these people, the United States and Israel are forever right. And over there: the Devil. The evil one—and indeed Saddam Hussein fulfills the criteria for this title—cannot be tolerated.

For Goenawan, such a dangerous, chauvinistic attitude leads to brutality, human injustice and the oppression of the powerless, as it allows people to justify any action, whether in the name of religion, patriotism or ideology. However, he does not see such extremism as exclusively belonging to American/Christian fundamentalism. In another essay, "Bombs," Goenawan ridicules the Bali bombers who killed 200 kafirs with the question: "Around 200 kafirs killed, but then what? Go and kill unbelievers? Until when? Can't the definition of what makes a kafir be debated unceasingly, thus making them also countless in number?"

From Goenawan's statements, we can see how illogical it is to equate inhumane actions with sacred duties—sacrificing others for the sake of religious glory simply doesn't make sense. Sadly, as Goenawan reveals in numerous essays in the collection, such barbarism continues to be found throughout the world. At one point, he recalls the events of late July 1995, in which General Ratko Mladic, the Serbian commander, slaughtered around 8,000 Muslims in Srebrenica. And in "From Ambon and Scorched Ruins," he highlights the religious violence of his own country, recounting how from 1999 to 2005 Indonesia experienced a bloody civil war between Moluccan Muslims and Christians, which resulted in 13,000 casualties and the burning of churches, mosques and houses.

Responding to these acts of savagery—as well as to others described in the collection, including the religious riots that broke out between Muslims and Hindus after the destruction of the Babri Mosque by Hindu revivalists ("God") and the fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini against Salman Rushdie ("Rushdie")—Goenawan offers an antidote, a way out; that is, to accept sacred texts as poetry. He posits:

Accepting sacred texts as a living poetry means to accept the word of God not as a decree, but rather as an invitation to dialogue; not as intimidation, but rather as the bestowal of love. In this way, we free ourselves from a biased, confining view about God and mankind. God as a kind of tyrant, and humans like His colonized subjects, already exiled and forever distrusted[.]

Goenawan is critical of those who would put God in a box, turning Him into a bonsai tree, a miniaturised representation of what God actually is. He rejects the view that "Allah" is only the God of Muslims—arguing that the term has also been used by pre-Islamic Arabs, polytheists and Christians—as well as the claim of fundamentalist Christians that "Their God is different to our God." According to Goenawan, God cannot be treated as "a ruler of a territory, a king with rigid boundaries." He cites the Pharaoh's question to Moses—"And what is the Lord of the worlds?"—and Moses's unexpected answer, which is not so much a definition as a depiction that does not stop at one conclusion: "God is the Lord of the East and the West and what is between them." From here, Goenawan proceeds:

A God who does not cheer is a God depicted not as the All-loving and All-forgiving, but rather as the All-hating. And if so, he is a futile creator. For then our life loses its meaning, man is just one absurd product. And then we forget that that life is a gift, that the world is not a cursed place of exile, that man is important, a caliph on earth, and not a hunted dog[.]

Embracing the view of God as all-loving and not all-hating would surely reduce the incidences of religious violence, as people from different faiths would be more likely to act out of respect and love than hatred and anger. Goenawan himself is a model of how to be open-minded and embrace differences. Although a Muslim, he often quotes Biblical stories ("Abraham," "Casting Stones," "Akhenaten"), Hindu epics and myths ("Visnu," "Family") and Daoist wisdom ("Laozi," "Tso Wang").

One can see Goenawan's belief that human life should have meaning in "Icarus One Day," in which he expresses concerns over society's indifference towards the suffering of others. The essay is a response to Brueghel's painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, which Goenawan feels portrays the death of Icarus not as tragic or dramatic but as amusing. He observes that in the painting "normal life seems unperturbed by the fate of someone being stricken down, dragged by death." He then poses a critical question: "Doesn't that boy's life have worth, no matter what his error?" By asking the question, Goenawan joins W.H. Auden, who utters a similar protest in "Musee des Beaux Arts":

In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away

Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may

Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,

But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone

As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green

Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen

Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,

Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

The author does, however, find empathy and compassion in other artistic works. Goenawan points out that Rembrandt's painting "The Sacrifice of Isaac" provides an example of how to portray sympathy for the pain of others. For him, the compassion the painting demonstrates towards Abraham's suffering at least partly arises from the painter's own life: "Evidently, Rembrandt painted this scene when, aged 29, he had just experienced the death of his own infant son. This seems to have made his painting more sympathetic to the bitterness of senseless loss of an innocent child. His Abraham is not executing the initial command of God."

On this point, Goenawan agrees with Emmanuel Levinas, the French philosopher and Talmudic commentator, who writes "that Abraham obeyed the first voice is astonishing: that he had sufficient distance with respect to that obedience to hear the second voice—that is essential." In reflecting on the painting as well as on Levinas' interpretation, Goenawan surmises that when Abraham looks at the face of Isaac, he actually stares at "the face of humanity. The infinite face. That cannot be an object. The face that causes God's command to have meaning: 'Do not kill.'" In response to this glimpse of humanity, Goenawan encourages us to follow Abraham's lead: "And to Levinas, as to us, every face calls to us. We respond, take responsibility, do not easily abuse. We recall Abraham at that moment. He becomes meaningful because of this."

Ultimately, Goenawan hopes for us to change our attitude toward our fellow man, much like the transformation he observes in the career of Hergé, the author of Tintin:

In the end, the humour in Tintin is created from openness to different others; to people we do not admire, but love. It is not surprising that it can unite people who enjoy it via eighty languages[.]

But that's not easy. The history of Tintin is also the history of European myopia. The adventures in Congo (published in 1930) reflects Hergé's view of the Africans as subordinate beings. The faces of the Congolese resemble monkeys. They are lazy and stupid. At one point, a Congolese woman says thank you and makes a respectful gesture. And Snowy the dog says arrogantly, "We are on top, aren't we?"

The final question piercingly reveals the racist and colonialist attitudes of Hergé's early work. But then … and this is very important … "Hergé later regretted this work. He changed." Goenawan explains that the cartoonists' change of attitude is clearly reflected in the friendship he later developed with Chang, a Chinese student he met in Brussels in 1934. From this friendship was born a new story, "Tintin in Tibet," in which Tintin saves his friend Chang from the Yeti's cave. The story manifests a beautiful transformation—Hergé indifference, arrogance and superiority have been replaced by an egalitarianism, in which all men are created equal and therefore should be treated with respect and love regardless of race, ethnicity or religion.

I end this review by citing Keat's famous line which Goenawan Mohamad also quotes:

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:

Its loveliness increases; it will never

Pass into nothingness.

This collection is a thing of beauty—that rare book that touches the mind, heart and soul. It is eye-opening, mind-boggling, thought-provoking, awareness-raising and, hopefully, attitude-changing.

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